Death and the Civil War will premiere on American Experience on the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) Tuesday, Sept. 18, at 7 p.m. in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam to this day the single bloodiest day in American history.
From acclaimed filmmaker Ric Burns, Death and the Civil War explores an essential but largely overlooked aspect of the most pivotal event in American history: the transformation of the nation by the death of an estimated 750,000 people nearly two and a half percent of the population at the time from 1861 to 1865.
With the Civil War, and its completely unprecedented casualties, death entered the experience of the American people as it never had before on a scale and in a manner no one had ever imagined, under circumstances for which the nation was completely unprepared. The impact permanently altered the character of the republic, the culture of the government and the psyche of the American people.
Transpose the percentage of dead that mid-19th-century America faced into our own time 7 million dead, if we had the same percentage, said author Drew Gilpin Faust, on whose book, This Republic of Suffering, the film is based. What would we as a nation today be like if we faced the loss of 7 million individuals?
Before the Civil War, there were no national cemeteries in America; no provisions to identify the dead, notify next of kin, or provide aid to families of dead veterans; no federal relief organizations; no effective ambulance corps; no adequate federal hospitals; no federal provisions for burying the dead; no Arlington Cemetery; and no Memorial Day. The Civil War universally predicted to be a brief and bloodless military adventure came crashing down as the war dragged on, casualties mounted, and the cumulative impact of the war sank deeply into the psyche of the American people.
When the Civil War ended in April 1865, Americans struggled to come to terms with what they had done to each other and to themselves in four bloody years. No official policy existed for locating, identifying, re-burying and honoring the hundreds of thousands of people who had died, or for comforting the widows and orphans. Tens of thousands of soldiers lay unburied, their bones littering battlefields; still more had been hastily interred where they fell, and hundreds of thousands remained unidentified.
Decoration Day rituals placing seasonal flowers on graves sites sprang up in many locations around the South. Northerners, too, frequently chose a spring day for formal commemoration of the dead. In the spring of 1868, General John Logan officially designated May 30 for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country. Memorial Day is still celebrated nationally on the day General Logan specified three years after the end of the Civil War.